Žižek on toilets and the Christchurch rebuild

A few years back, I was wandering through an art gallery and came upon a room with a video projected on a large white wall. The video was short, only a few minutes long, and since it repeated on a loop, I watched it several times. The video was of a speech given by a wild-eyed man with a shaggy beard who I later learned was the modern philosopher Slavoj Žižek who has since become an intellectual hero for members of the Occupy movement.

In the video, Žižek talks about the connection between objects and ideology using, as examples, the different types of toilets he encountered while traveling through Europe. He reflects on three types: the French, the German and the British toilet. For the uninitiated, I shall briefly describe each. In France, the toilet is designed with the hole at the back of the bowl so the waste falls immediately into water and can disappear unseen and unacknowledged by its maker. The German model is the exact opposite. The Germans place the hole in the front of the bowl with a raised shelf behind. When you use the toilet, the waste collects on the dry shelf below you, affording the opportunity to inspect it for disease before you flush it off the shelf and into the hole in the front. The English design is a compromise that places the hole in the center of the bowl with a larger amount of water. This lets the user decide whether they wish to confront their waste or not.

Noticing these things, Žižek wanted to know how these different designs had come about. Architect friends supplied him with technical books on the subject and he describes how each designer tries to prove their design is the best in a purely functional sense. Since they are all ultimately variations on a theme, Žižek says this argumentation merely reflects the cultural ideology behind the features of each design. While there may be technical arguments for one design feature or another, the best combination is ultimately a matter of cultural taste. To those who would argue we live in a post-ideological world, Žižek says you only need to go to the toilet to find you are literally sitting on ideology, so to speak.

While it may seem ridiculous (and perhaps a bit gross) to spend too much time pondering toilet design, I find his argument compelling on a number of levels. Every man-made object is, in varying proportions, both utilitarian and symbolic. We have items that are almost entirely symbolic which, like a king’s scepter, have almost no utilitarian purpose whatsoever. At the other extreme are things like the humble toilet, which are so banal and commonplace that we can forget they carry any symbolic baggage at all. The toilet is an especially extreme example since the act of using the toilet is considered by most cultures to be a vulgar necessity, to be done in private and not to be discussed, further negating any potential symbolic value. A designer wanting to make their mark on the world is not likely to choose the toilet as their medium. But there it is: holes in different places, shelves, different water flows, and we haven’t even left Europe.

These small differences can have lasting social impacts. To this day, most German men urinate sitting down, precisely because any attempt to pee directly on the German shelf from a height results in urine being splashed all over the room. Although the German-style toilet is disappearing (perhaps understandably) from German homes and public places, the culture of seated urination for men is alive and well. Foreign men living in the country for any length of time are likely to encounter signs urging them to sit down and it is not uncommon for a German host to ask for this directly, even if they have an English-style bowl. It makes me wonder how many habits I carry around from objects now gone or completely different from their antecedents (the QWERTY keyboard I’m typing on comes to mind).

To point out that objects carry cultural and ideological values with them is perhaps to state the obvious. But I think that objects and buildings have the potential to develop multiple layers of ideology that can, with time, eventually build up like geologic strata.

Take the example of an apartment building. There is the original mix of utility and symbolism infused by the designer and the builder of the time (and likely the funder as well). On top of this, users of the building add their decorative flair and periodic renovations from new owners leave architectural time stamps in the form of a 19th century banister here, 70s carpet there, and modern windows that open in and out in every direction imaginable.

Historical events and movements add a layer as well. I have been living in Berlin for the past year and the city is full of apartment buildings with abrupt endings and odd gaps, likely the result of Allied bombs. The plain architecture of the new buildings erected in these gaps show the urgent need for housing at the time, communist leanings, or both.

It is on the more meta-scale of the building scape where these ideological features are most pronounced. In addition to the scars of war, many of Berlin’s surviving buildings have blank spots where swastikas once were (or the hammer and sickle for that matter). These added layers of historical symbolism reveal the past struggles of identity and belief and reflect them back on the current users. The rebuilding of Berlin since the war and after the fall of the wall forced Berliners to reflect upon who they were and what they believed. It has also played a strong role in creating the feeling of possibility and reinvention that is a hallmark of the town.

Berlin is perhaps the most extreme example, but I think a similar struggle for identity is underway in Christchurch at the moment. In a city where people still care about which of the four original ships their ancestors came on, the brick buildings lost in the earthquakes are not only a matter of heritage but are also symbols to Cantabrians of how they have traditionally seen themselves—the most English of English-New Zealanders.

English is what most Pakeha have considered themselves, with people as recently as the 1950s still referring to Kiwis traveling to Britain as “visiting home”. New Zealanders only really began to define themselves as a separate national identity after WWII and were forced to confront this issue through a series of events: the loss of colonial trade links in the late 60s and early 70s, the rising legal recognition of the importance of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Springbok tour in the 80s, and the continuation of anti-nuclear policies to the present day.

Discussions about New Zealand identity are few and far between these days and tend to be mixed in with racial issues (the “kiwi, not iwi” National slogan and Paul Henry’s breakfast show comments come to mind). The Christchurch rebuild therefore provides an important opportunity not only for current Cantabrians to consider what mark they want to leave on their town, but also for all New Zealanders to envision themselves more broadly in terms of bricks and mortar (or rather wood and steel, considering the circumstances).

It is interesting that these changes are happening in one of New Zealand’s more conservative cities. This is likely to mean that innovative designs, if they are to be accepted, will need to have both a vision for the future, and a connection with the past. I hope New Zealand’s design community is successful in this regard and is able to shape something positive out of what has been one of New Zealand’s most traumatic natural disasters. It certainly won’t be easy.

I wonder what sort of public toilets they will have.


Picture of a German toilet.


Picture of a please sit down sign.